The Burning Girl and Lifeless – Mark Billingham

I wrote this after reading The Burning Girl earlier this year and after reading some quite critical reviews on Amazon, although I didn’t get around to posting on there…

Detectives at the London Met don’t spend all their time chasing serial killers; luckily such criminals remain few and far between.  London does, however, have an increasing problem with organised gang crime and in using this as the basis of the plot for The Burning Girl Billingham has injected a massive dose of pure realism.

I was prepared to be disappointed with this book, as I found the second and third in Tom Thorne the series a tad unmemorable, after such a brilliant first in the series, Sleepyhead.  Also, the subject matter of the opening crime and indeed the title, led me to think that this book would be both too gruesome and graphic for my taste.

I needn’t have feared.  The characterisation is excellent and the subject matter very sensitively handled.  This is even bigger and better, richer crime fiction writing that firmly places Billingham amongst today’s best British crime writers.

The page turning suspense came from a plot that kept me guessing to the end.

North London is a territory clearly known well by Billingham who can bring it to life atmospherically, without ever being corny.  We have more of Tom Thorne’s personal life in this book, where the pressures of his father’s failing health are again pursued.  We also have the trademark humour.

I didn’t think that this book was the product of a writer who is slipping.  For me it was evidence of a writer successfully scaling a rock face and coming up with the goods.  Even better goods than before.

So, last weekend I finished Lifeless.  Some friends had told me that if I like TBG then Lifeless is even better.  I have to agree with them.  A dreadful subject, again very sensitively handled.  London, again, brought to life for what it really is and what hovers under its veneer.  I actually found the characterisation in Lifeless quite remarkable; men and women who are so very human and not an ounce of cliché in sight.  I think Billingham has a very incisive eye when it comes to observing human behaviour and the ability to open up a male character, exploring his thoughts and emotions, without reducing his alpha male status.

Also, I cannot imagine anyone finishing this book without a significant rise in their ability to empathise with the plight of the homeless.

As for Tom Thorne, his character development is wonderful.  Lifeless opens with Thorne having just lost his father and returning to work, but perhaps, not quite ready to do so.  He goes undercover on the streets of London, joining the homeless community, following a couple of murders.    We get to understand the lives of the homeless through Thorne’s eyes and this is an excellent piece of research on the part of Billingham, well drawn in the story: the routine of day to day life; budgets to live within; ways to make money; addictions; drugs; the community spirit; community divisions; the charities who care and provide support; the extent to which those who have served in our armed forces end up on the streets.

I won’t say anymore about the book as I don’t want to give away the plot.  But it’s a page turner for sure.

This is a writer going from strength to strength.  The next in the series, Buried, is due out on 3 August 2006.